Friday, January 6, 2023

Dan Reviews Books, Part 10

Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ,7,8,9


Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

I do not like this book, and the more I think about it the less I like it. Makes me grumpy just mentioning it. Worst fucking thing is that if you remove literally one element, it works fine.

Hegira, Greg Bear

What if Ringworld, minus the creepy sex stuff. While admirable on principle, it runs into the same functional problems that Ringworld does: not a whole lot happens, the characters are paper-thin, and the Big Space Object Ideas are so Big and Space that the big picture is confusingly monologued to us twenty pages from the end. And so it is a very light novel of ideas, though it serves itself better than Ringworld by filling its Big Space Object with people and cultures instead of interminable fields of sunflowers.

Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo

Another novella from the world featured in When The Tiger Came Down the Mountain, once again featuring our intrepid scholar-monk Chih recording stories of the world and its people. This time it is the life of the recently-deceased empress, as told by her handmaid, as the two clean out the lakeside manor where the empress had spent her exile.

As with Vo's other work the world is vibrant, the characters elegantly sketched, and it is precisely as long as it needs to be.

Forge of God, Greg Bear

DNF 124/473

's not bad, just not what I wanted or needed. Too many characters introduced all at once, but they felt indistinct and I would have rather just had one POV, I think. Conceptually neat but also something that, due to the ceaseless passage of time, is not as novel to me as it might have been at time of publishing, and so the slow burn does it no favors.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine

DNF 120/459

The main character of A Memory Called Empire is supposedly a competent diplomat. She is not. She is a bumbling, incompetent idiot, incapable of the most basic tasks required by her job, and this is apparently just the way it is supposed to be. It's not about a nepotism hire ending up in too deep, she just lacks the basic survival instincts necessary to function in her job.

Imagine, being the replacement ambassador of your people in the imperial capital. Your predecessor is dead under mysterious circumstances, by which I mean it is obviously murder. You represent a solar system containing at absolute maximum, 300,000 people. Your people have no fleet and no military. You have nothing to bargain with. You have no personal staff. You are flying blind, with intel that is 15 years out of date. What do you do?

If you answered "try and make friends with your imperial handler and spill state secrets to three people within 48 hours of your arrival on a whim", congrats, you are Mahit Dzmare. Her primary character trait, beyond a total lack of comprehension that she is in danger and needs to take precautions against finding herself face down in the Tiber, is a constant, unquestioned delight in the culture of the empire that has a gun pointed at the head of her entire civilization. I can only call her a weeaboo. (Teixcalaaniboo?). Congratulations, you know some pretty poetry; please recognize for a fucking picosecond that this place is built on mountains of corpses. You might as well be laying out a doormat that says "Hello Empire! Please genocide us. I will sell out everyone I know because you write pretty things about flowers." And because she is a fucking idiot, nothing she does that is intended to be cute or charming or interesting or relatable comes across as such - it's just constant aggravating nonsense.

It is slow, plodding, talks a lot while saying nothing, introduces glimpses of interesting setting elements only to do nothing with them, is entirely too squeaky-clean for a story about a god-damn space empire, and the character voices are not only identical to each other, they are all that obnoxious 20-something (as of ten years ago) not-actually-connected-emotionally-or-factually-to-the-events-at-hand Whedonesque chatter.

The most interesting sci-fi concept in the book (MC has a brain implant carrying an emulation of the previous ambassador) is literally removed from the story by the end of the first chapter. That and it's obvious that there are aliens involved out there in the background; more aliens, less Mahit.

My search for good sci-fi continues.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

My search for good sci-fi has found some fucking gold.

It is difficult to put into proper words how good this book is without turning into a raving madman. It is a brilliant novel of ideas, and contains moments of some real, raw humanity in it. Tchaikovsky is able to thread the needle on believable tragedy for six hundred pages - at every juncture, people make perfectly rational stupid choices, blinded by ego or ignorance or plain lack of information. And yet this unstoppable thematic lodestone - that humans are trapped by our destructive short-sightedness - does not tip over into complete despair. It easily could have, but it never did. Trapped we might be, but the potential to escape the trap is there, just beyond our reach. The spiders and their growing civilization, with all of their own trials and stumblings, give us the hope that is desperately needed. And we sympathize with the human characters - even the very hateable antagonists have moments where we can say "you're a fucking monster, but I understand how you got here." The pacing is excellent, covering thousands of years at a steady clip. Developments and status quo changes emerge, become widespread, fade into the background as if they were always there. The enormity of the cosmos and the timescale paradoxically feels claustrophobic and fragile.

It's just so fucking good. Sapient spiders train ant colonies to sequence DNA. It's that kind of book.

The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People's Perseverance, Ellen Cushman

In a major break with form, this is nonfiction. It is a fascinating book and I am learning a lot, though I feel like it spins its wheels and repeats its points a bit too often. But, I am much more aligned with casual info presentation so that might be on me. But that part is less important.

The important part is that the Cherokee syllabary is fucking rad. Sequoyah worked for a decade to get it right and within another decade afterwards the nation had like an 80-90% literacy rate. Because Sequoyah went and designed something that was geared specifically for his language, which in turn made it easy to learn.

So in Cherokee, which is a polysynthetic language (high morpheme count, heavy inflection, high information density), a single syllable contains both sound and grammatical meaning(s). Having a character for each vowel and consonant-vowel combo means that you get to communicated those bits of grammatical information in single characters, which means that a reader can glean stuff like person and tense just by looking at what characters are at the beginning and end of a word (because inflections come in regular slots). The example Cushman gives to illustrate this is a series of tables where the words are all in Cherokee script, with no transliteration, arranged according to person and tense, and just looking at everything all together you can see it as essentially plug-and-play word-building and once it clicks it is the coolest thing.

There's  whole lot more, too. The development of the handwritten vs the typewritten script, the foundation of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, and how the script became a fundamental part of Cherokee national and cultural identity. It's great stuff.

Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky

The man's swiftly entered my "anything with his name on it is worth checking out" list. A novella, so I will be brief - selling point is that he uses the gimmick of alternating between the POVs of the colonial, medieval character and the high-tech "wizard" - we go back and forth between viewing the same events as a fantasy story and a sci-fi story. And unlike many other works, it's not going for a cheap "ah, look at this misguided primitives with their superstitions, let's enlighten them of how the world really works!", and for that I am endlessly thankful.


  1. I bounced off A Memory Called Empire too, partly for the reasons you described and partly because I couldn't muster interest in the characters.

    Hegira is by Greg Bear, and not Greg Egan, btw.

    1. I'd thought so, the description brought Eon to mind more than something like Egan's Diaspora (a novel with similar themes).

      Maybe it's the autism speaking but personally I find Egan's otherwise abstracted characters all the more moving because their struggles are only possible in the fantastic settings they live in.

    2. Ah! Don't know how that error happened, but it's fixed now.

  2. Yeah, Tchaikovsky is read anything, which is pretty rare territory

  3. Check out dogs of war also by tchaikovsky